Orange vs. blue

As Israeli battles Israeli over Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza, the prime minister is working to keep the real prize: The big West Bank settlements. Will Bush go along?

Published July 22, 2005 7:58PM (EDT)

Israel is divided these days by colors. Orange belongs to the right-wing opponents of prime minister Ariel Sharon, protesting his "disengagement" plan to remove the Jewish settlements from the Gaza strip and northern West Bank next month. They appropriated the color from Ukraine's pro-democracy camp, which successfully overturned a sham election. The pro-disengagement crowd took blue, or blue-and-white like the Israeli national flag, as its emblem.

Driving up the hills to Jerusalem, with its heavily religious population, one sees an abundance of cars with orange stripes tied to their radio antennas and external mirrors. Down in secular Tel Aviv, there are more and more blue stripes. The war of colors is the public expression of a deeper debate, centering on Israel's direction and the ability of its democracy to absorb an act as deeply divisive as Sharon's disengagement.

The anti-government protests have many faces, from angry teenagers blocking main highways to calls by prominent, white-haired rabbis for their followers in the military to disobey the evacuation order. "Soldier, officer, refuse the order" is the battle cry of right-wing demonstrators, and those who have actually refused (a small number) have become symbols of the fight. So far, however, the anger has not ignited into mass violence: both sides have refrained from forceful confrontation. The country's security chiefs, defense minister Shaul Mofaz and police chief Moshe Karadi, anticipated in advance that the worst-case scenarios of settlers shooting at the evacuating police would not happen. Mofaz predicted that the settler movement would not want to risk losing its remaining public support by breaking with democracy and the rule of law. "They will have to live with us on the day after, and send their sons to the same army, and they know it," he said. The actual removal of settlements, scheduled for August 15, is over three weeks away, but so far it appears that Mofaz was correct.

The government hesitated at first to act strongly against the road-blockers and demonstrators. But the opposition overplayed its hand, and Sharon used it to gain public support for tougher measures. Sharon blasted those who preach refusal as "leading to the country's destruction" and ordered the security organs to take a harder line. (State attorney Meni Mazuz, however, still refuses to indict the refusal-preaching former chief rabbis, Avraham Shapiro and Mordechai Eliahu, questioning the wisdom of dragging old people into police stations.)

Last week Sharon signed a decree closing the Gaza Strip to all Israelis except those who still live and work in the soon-to-be-evacuated settlements. Its aim was to preempt the largest expression of protest to date, a mass popular march towards Gush Katif, the site of most settlements slated for evacuation. Yesha Council, the settlers' official leadership, brought tens of thousands of people to the journey, but the police and army successfully stopped and encircled them at Kfar Maimon, a village on the Israeli side of the Gaza border. After three days in the scorching summer heat, spent in an orange-colored, Woodstock-like gathering, most demonstrators dispersed quietly to their homes, having failed to achieve their dual goal of undermining the government's authority and reinforcing the Gaza settlements. Their leaders pledged to infiltrate via other means to the locked-off Gush Katif. The organizers maintained remarkable discipline among the marchers, who avoided violence, but they failed to attract participants beyond their core group of West Bank religious settlers, many of them children on summer break. Three weeks before the Gaza D-day, Sharon has prevailed over his opponents, at least for now.

The prime minister's aides said that the settler leadership's ability to control the crowd was the most important lesson of the week's events. "We were afraid they would lose control to less organized, and possibly more violent, forces," said a senior aide. Both of Sharon's deputies, Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert, suggested an earlier withdrawal timetable to cut short the settlers' protest. But Sharon balked at the idea. His office explained that changing the schedule would involve complicated legal and operational moves.

Sharon's life story is a record of continuous struggle, mostly against Israel's Arab adversaries, sometimes versus his army commanders and political rivals. For four years he led the country during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which cost about 1,000 Israeli dead and perhaps three times that many on the Palestinian side. Currently, however, he is facing the toughest battle of his lifetime, against his erstwhile settler allies. He had sent them to the West Bank hills and Gaza's golden dunes, and now, with the same ruthlessness, he wants to redraw the map, give away the less strategic Gaza strip for a stronger hold over Israel's "settlement blocs" in the hills overlooking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This is heresy, not to say treachery, in the eyes of ideological settlers, who believe they are fulfilling God's biblical pledge to give the land to the people of Israel. Sharon's more secular critics, mostly within his Likud party, blame him for "rewarding Palestinian terror" by abandoning a hard-won territory.

Sharon justifies his about-face over the settlements by claiming to have reassessed the changing domestic, regional and international balance of forces. Facing the opposition's rage, he has reacted with characteristic calmness, maintaining his normal schedule aand pretending that it's business as usual. Presenting a statesmanlike image has been the key to Sharon's electoral victories in 2001 and 2003, and he wants to maintain it for next year's reelection effort.

On Wednesday, the Knesset rejected the right's last effort to derail the evacuation through a parliament bill. Sharon's challenger, finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, did not participate in the vote (under the principle of collective responsibility in a parliamentary system, a minister who votes against the cabinet's line is automatically fired. Avoiding the vote, however, does not carry such a penalty.)

Sharon's strategy has paid off in his improved international image. It is difficult to grasp how a man who was despised for years as a warmonger and bully for his violent record in fighting the Arabs, has now become the darling of world leaders. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Jerusalem on Thursday to show support for Sharon and push Israelis and Palestinians to better coordinate the Gaza withdrawal. Rice will visit Sharon's farm on Friday, a small reciprocity for the prime minister's trip to President Bush's Texas ranch last April. But American support for Sharon will not be expressed only in touring the pastures. The administration is expected to announce a $2 billion aid package to Israel, to underwrite the military relocation out of Gaza and development projects in the country's northern and southern regions.

The Bush administration is not the only one applauding Sharon's disengagement plan. French President Jacques Chirac, long critical of Israel and its premier, will give Sharon an unprecedented red-carpet treatment in Paris next week.

Rice decided to extend her Africa trip with a Mideast leg upon hearing the bad news of renewed Palestinian-Israeli violence last week. For several days, it appeared as if both sides had resumed their well-known retaliatory cycle. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself near an Israeli shopping mall, then the IDF recaptured the bomber's home town. This was followed by a stream of rockets from Gaza to Israel, to which Sharon responded with the assassinations of 10 Hamas operatives. Then Israel threatened to invade Gaza, deploying forces and tanks in front of the international TV networks. The combination of military threat and hastened diplomacy brought back the ceasefire. In the process, the Palestinian Authority forces of chairman Mahmoud Abbas confronted Hamas for the first time. There were shootings and dozens of Palestinians were wounded. For Israel, Abbas' confrontation with Hamas was too little, too late, but it indicated that Abbas might be able to take care of post-evacuation Gaza.

Upon her arrival, Rice stressed to Israeli officials the importance of implementing the disengagement and coordinating the implementation with the Palestinian Authority. (Palestinians had complained that Israel was not communicating with them about the withdrawal.) She also told them that the Gaza withdrawal should be used to strengthen Abbas's role and pave the way for a future political process, based on the globally endorsed "roadmap" plan for Palestinian statehood.

Longtime acquaintances, Sharon and Abbas have yet to build mutual trust and serious dialogue. Both are focused now on their domestic challenges and forthcoming elections, rather than on mutual quid pro quos. Their meeting last month, prodded by Rice, was a disaster. Clearly, both leaders are trying to reposition themselves for the real contest next year, when the fate of the West Bank will be put on the diplomatic table. Even the settlers know that Gaza is lost, and they will wage their real battle over the far more important Judea and Samaria hills, the heart of the settler movement and home to its most extreme wing.

Sharon is currently riding high in the polls, but his troubles are far from over. His political fate is dependent upon a successful withdrawal. Senior Israeli politicians expect that following a non-violent evacuation and a prolonged ceasefire on the Palestinian front, Sharon will want to capitalize on his success and call an early election around February 2006. Nevertheless, if things go wrong, Netanyahu may dethrone Sharon. In recent months, the finance minister has positioned himself as an opponent of disengagement, relying on the energy of the orange forces to retake the prime minister's seat he lost in 1999. Sharon is trying to divide the settler camp, positioning himself as the savior of the "settlement blocs," where most settlers live.

On Thursday, as Secretary Rice was en route from Sudan to Jerusalem, Sharon visited the large West Bank settlement of Ariel, while Netanyahu toured the settlements in the Jordan Rift Valley to support their "strengthening." Their visits were previews of next year's political contest: who will do better on "keeping the blocs" under future Israeli sovereignty.

Indeed, Sharon stood on the Ariel hills, watched the construction work on Israel's separation barrier around it, and pledged to keep "this bloc and the others" part of Israel, connected with territorial contiguity. He also promised to "expand the bloc" with new construction.

In other times, such statements would provoke American criticism. But these are not ordinary times; the Bush administration wants Sharon to deliver in Gaza, and is ready in return to back the Israeli leader's settlement blocs policy. Bush's letter to Sharon from April 2004 pledged to acknowledge the "realities on the ground" in determining future Israeli-Palestinian borders -- a pro-Israel departure from previous U.S. policy, which had never gone that far. It was carefully written, leaving space for "creative ambiguity" over the future of settlement blocs. In practice, the administration has turned a blind eye to ongoing construction in the settlement blocs, but raised objections to Sharon's plan for building thousands of new housing units between Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim, the largest West Bank settlement. But three months ago, standing next to Bush, Sharon pledged to go on with the project.

The Bush administration is sticking to its cautious approach to the Israeli-Palestinian arena. With its Iraq policy in shambles as a guerrilla war rages, and the Arab democratization initiative hardly taking off, Sharon's withdrawal appears to be the only possible success in the region. It is little wonder, then, that American officials assert, "Disengagement is the center of American Mideast policy." This is music to Sharon's ears: it allows him military freedom of action (the world did nothing when Israel resumed its assassination policy against Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives), facilitates further construction of the barrier, including in East Jerusalem, and strengthens his political posture. Israelis know that their nation's relationship with America is crucial, and they judge their leaders by their access to the Oval Office. Bush clearly favors Sharon over the hardliner Netanyahu.

Sharon is seen at home a strong leader and master of political manipulation and trickery. His soft spot is corruption. Next week, the state attorney is expected to announce the indictment of Sharon's son Omri, a Knesset member and important political operative, on fraud charges in his father's primary campaign several years ago (dad claimed he didn't know what was going on in his campaign.) Sharon Jr. is seeking a plea bargain, but Mazuz is playing hardball, demanding a prison term. If Omri goes to trial, his father may be called as a prosecution witness. It's hard to overestimate the embarrassment and political risk that would be involved in this scenario. It would be seen as the son's sacrifice for his father. Omri's indictment is pending a Knesset vote to lift his parliamentary immunity, but it would be hard to block it there, given the alignment of political forces.

Many questions are still unanswered in the boiling atmosphere of Israel in summer 2005: Will democracy prevail over its challengers, allowing the Gaza settlements to be peacefully evacuated? Who will be Israel's next leader? What will the orange troops next sound their battle cry? Will Gaza become a working model for Palestinian statehood, or a haven for Islamic terrorists? And last, but not least, during his second term will George W. Bush stand by his pledge to help create a Palestinian state ?

By Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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